Tag Archives: C. Marvin Pate

Review: Interpreting Revelation and Other Apocalyptic Literature

The fourth in a four-volume series, C. Marvin Pate examines “apocalyptic literature as it begins in the Old Testament, develops in Second Temple Judaism, and culminates in the New Testament, especially in the book of Revelation, all the while demonstrating how to communicate the message of that literature to today’s audience” (21). Each volume contains eight elements (which make up Pate’s chapters):

  1. The Genre and Figures of Speech of Apocalyptic Literature
  2. The Historical Background of Prophetic-Apocalyptic Books
  3. The Function of Apocalypticism and the Theme of Israel’s Story
  4. Preparing to Interpret the Text
  5. Interpreting Biblical Apocalyptic Literature
  6. Communicating a Passage in Revelation
  7. From Text to Sermon: Two Examples
  8. Selected Sources

Each chapter has an opening “Chapter at a Glance” section and a closing “Chapter in Review” section to help summarize the information. Pate’s book isn’t very long, but he’s able to provide a lot of information for the reader to digest (inhale?).

The first three chapters provide an overall understanding to the apocalyptic genre. In chapter one, using J. J. Collins’ definition (which has now become the standard definition to the genre), the apocalypse “is a genre of revelatory literature with a narrative framework, in which a revelation is mediated by an otherwordly being to a human recipient disclosing a transcendent reality which is both temporal, insofar as it envisages eschatological salvation, and spatial insofar as it involves another, supernatural world” (30). Books in this genre each have a specific kind of form, content, and function-although Pate only defines what the “function” aspect is. The function of the apocalyptic genre is to remind the letter’s recipients that they are still in exile, and defecting from God brings covenant curses on oneself, but staying faithful to him will bring covenant blessings-the presence of the Messiah himself (32).

Chapter two shows how apocalypticism retells Israel’s story “in light of the imminent end/actual fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians” as seen in Isaiah 24-27, 56-66, Joel 2-3, and Ezekiel 38-39 (p. 49). Other retellings of Israel’s story that are examined are Daniel 9-12 and Zechariah 9-14. The Oliviet Discourse and Revelation 6 (as well as the whole letter of Revelation) are apocalyptic reapplications of the Fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Chapter three provides the function of apocalypticism. Pate examines the main themes of Israel’s story (sin, exile, and restoration) and shows how they are seen in seven apocalyptic books (Daniel, 1 Enoch, the Dead Sea Scrolls, Revelation, the Testament of Moses, 4 Ezra, and 2 Baruch). He shows how other aspects of the apocalyptic genre are seen in these books, such as the covenantal blessings and curses, otherworldly beings, journeys, and mediators, and more.  (Pate also mentioned that, in an unpublished study, he has “applied the entire taxonomy of the genre of apocalypticism to these seven works,” p. 80. Yet, if the study is unpublished, how does that help the reader?).

Chapter four is a short lesson on text criticism and Bible translation (see more on that below). Chapter five focuses on some of the background issues such as author, date of writing, and major system of interpretation. Pate, who admits he is the only person he knows of who has seen this, thinks the Arch of Titus is behind Revelation 4-19. “The Arch of Titus depicts three parts of the victor’s triumph: (a) the pre-parade, (2) the procession, and (3) the sacrifice and feast. Revelation 4-5 includes parallels to the pre-parade; Revelation 6-18 includes parallels to the procession; and Revelation 19 includes parallels to the sacrifice and feast” (153). Some aspects seem to fit, others do not, but that is up to the reader to decide. The syntactical function of words and semantics are briefly covered at the end of the chapter. Chapter six helps guide the reader on how to communicate a passage in Revelation (mainly 1:1-3) to today’s audience. Chapter seven (which I talk more about below) gives two examples on how to bring the text to the sermon.

The Spoiled Milk

Pate’s tables don’t always work.

  • On page 197 is a table comparing the old covenant of Israel in the Deuteronomy with the new covenant in Romans. He tries to show how the order of Romans follows the order of Deuteronomy, but because there isn’t much explanation concerning how these sections work, it made little sense to me.
  • The same goes with the comparison of the covenant format of Deuteronomy with Revelation 1:1-3 (173), only there Pate was able to provide more explanation, which I still found confusing.
  • On page 37, Pate gives a chart which “demonstrates how the covenant structure of Deuteronomy thoroughly informs the letters to the seven churches in Revelation.” Yet strangely, before this point Pate hasn’t provided his outline of Deuteronomy (this doesn’t come until later in the book, see p. 82). So while the reader can see the genre divisions, he won’t know how Pate divides Deuteronomy until later on in the book, which is, again, unhelpful. Most of the other charts, however, were very informative and laid out well.

Chapter four, Preparing to Interpret the Text, was unnecessary. Most of the chapter covered textual criticism, something that the reader-exegete should already know about. It’s too difficult to compress the ocean of textual criticism into a single chapter, especially in such a short book as this one. It would have served the reader better to see textual critical examples in Revelation instead (which is done on a page and a half in this chapter, and a few pages in later chapters).

I was also disappointed in chapter seven, From Text to Sermon: Two Examples, because neither of them dealt with Revelation. Although they deal with apocalyptic literature sections (Romans 11:25-27 and 2 Thessalonians 2:6-7), how does this help the reader with Revelation, especially with the seal, bowl, and trumpet judgments? While chapter six was helpful, that only dealt with the first three verses. How does the pastor take Revelation’s parallels with the other apocalyptic literature and preach that to his congregation? Perhaps he shouldn’t preach it, but at least he’ll have the knowledge stored away for his own knowledge and growth.

There were a few spelling mistakes throughout the book (32, 204), and two times that the parenthetical statements weren’t closed properly (57, 148). Also, see my quote above on the Arch of Titus (p. 153) where, in the three listed items, the listing goes from alphabetical (“a”) to numerical (“2” and “3”).

Recommended?

Unfortunately, if you’re looking for a book to help you with sermon preparation, give this book a pass. Pate has some interesting ideas (like the Arch of Titus), a view I hope to see people interact with, however, his book is too clunky and messy, there is too much going on, and I didn’t find it very helpful to use in interpretation. If you want a book that offers parallels between the apocalyptic books, there is a lot of good information here. However, I don’t see how it is very helpful as an exegetical handbook. Pastors can stick with Keener’s NIVAC volume, along with either deSilva, Beale, Mounce, or Osborne (or all of the above).

Lagniappe

  • Series: Handbooks for New Testament Interpretation
  • Author: C. Marvin Pate
  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Kregel Academic (November 27, 2016)

Buy it on Amazon or Kregel Academic

Disclosure: I received this book free from Kregel Academic. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html.

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